Environmentalists are hoping that the move by Illinois to ban the sale of facial exfoliators and body scrubs containing microbeads will mark the beginning of the end for the plastic pollutants.
Illinois this week became the first jurisdiction in the world to ban the plastic spheres from personal care products. Four other states are poised to follow suit, part of a rising awareness of the environmental concerns posed by the tiny plastics.
"Banning microbeads will help ensure clean waters across Illinois and set an example for our nation to follow," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said. "Lake Michigan and the many rivers and lakes across our state are among our most important natural resources."
The plastic beads come from exfoliating face washes, body scrubs, hand sanitizers and toothpaste, and the new Illinois law will ban their sale by the end of 2019.
Commonly made of polyethylene or polypropylene, the tiny beads range in size from 0.0004 to 1.24 mm, making them too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants.
Often buoyant, the beads can soak up toxins like a sponge. And since they resemble the size of fish eggs, environmentalists fear the micro-plastics are making their way into the food chain via fish, birds and mammals.
Three other U.S. states — Ohio, New York and California — have microbead-free acts wending through their legislatures. Minnesota is seeking a study on the plastic's impact.
Timelines for the proposed pieces of legislation range from the start of 2016 for New York to Jan. 1, 2019 for California, while Illinois's law will take effect in late 2018 by first banning production within the state itself.
The Dutch parliament, meanwhile, is also pushing for a European ban on plastic microbead usage. No similar legislative pushes are underway in Canada.
Nancy Goucher, the water program manager for the Toronto-based group Environmental Defence, said she hopes the Illinois move will serve as inspiration.
"I'd love to see similar leadership on this side of the border as well," said Goucher.
Meanwhile, chemist Sherri Mason, who conducted the first study that found microbeads floating in the Great Lakes said that while she's glad to see Illinois leading the way, she's troubled by the far-off deadline.
"The later date means more microbeads are going down the drain before we're really taking the measures that need to be taken," said Mason, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
In late 2013, the U.S.-based 5 Gyres Institute, which focuses on plastic pollution, wrote up model legislation for states to consider using to ban microbeads after little action from companies promising to phase out the plastics.
'Effectively by winning two states, you win the entire North American region.' - 5 Gyres associate director Stiv Wilson
"The timelines … were not binding and they became moving targets," 5 Gyres associate director, Stiv Wilson, told CBC News.
A number of personal care product manufacturers have promised to cut microbeads from their products in the coming years, but dates vary. Unilever is aiming for 2015, Colgate-Palmolive in 2014, Procter & Gamble vowed to be free by 2017, while Johnson & Johnson and L'Oréal haven't given a date.
Wilson hopes that at least two states will pass legislation, which could create a "distribution nightmare" for companies and forces them to act faster to replace the plastic microbeads with natural alternatives like ground almonds, sea salt or oatmeal.
"Effectively by winning two states, you win the entire North American region," he said.
Wilson grew up in Minnesota, which borders the northwestern side of Lake Superior, and feels a personal connection with the lakes. "As a kid growing up, the Great Lakes were the ocean to me," he said.
In 2012, he ended up working with Mason at Fredonia to conduct a series of tests to measure the amount of microplastics found in the Great Lakes.
In the previous summer, Mason was teaching a class about the history of atmospheric pollutants on Lake Erie while aboard US Brig Niagara, a wooden replica of an 1813 tall ship.
As she watched the water rush by the ship, she wondered if anybody had examined plastic in the waters and discovered there had been little done on the topic.
To capture the plastics, though, she needed a device and turned to 5 Gyres, which loaned her its "manta trawls" to tow behind vessels and capture anything larger than a third of a millimetre.
Mason and 5 Gyres ended up working together on the research, which spanned all five Great Lakes over the course of two summers in 2012 and 2013.
Really tiny bits
Unlike in the ocean, where 5 Gyres crews found "confetti-like" bits of degraded plastic up to 5 millimetres in size, the researchers trawling the Great Lakes found large amounts of "really tiny plastic fragments and beads" up to 1 mm, said Mason.
And as they followed the flow of the water through the Great Lakes, the plastic count increased.
The highest concentration was found in Lake Ontario, with counts of up to 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometre.
It is believed plastic microbeads were invented for use in cleansers by American Willis J. Beach in 1972. But they became popular in facial and body washes in the 1990s.
"It is a stupid design," says Wilson. "It is plastic put into a facial scrub or a body wash that is designed to be washed down the drain and into the environment."
Research by the Institute for Environmental Studies found that a 200 ml bottle contained as much as 21 grams of microplastics, or roughly a tenth of its weight.
Little government action here
'There is always more that the initiative could be doing.' - Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative executive director David Ullrich
The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative — a coalition of Canadian and U.S. mayors from 114 cities along the water bodies — has raised awareness about the microbead problem within their communities, and pushed companies to eliminate them from their products.
"We think we've done a pretty good job," said executive director David Ullrich, though he acknowledges, "there is always more that the initiative could be doing."
The coalition also asked companies who make products containing microbeads to explore ways to remove the plastic spheres from the water, a task currently believed to be impossible.
"We don't have an answer from them, as yet," Ullrich says.
While the Great Lakes coalition isn't considering legal action to hold companies liable, the 5 Gyres Institute is.
Wilson calls that the next option if legislation doesn't prove effective at forcing companies to end their use of microbeads.